Editor’s note: This article has been updated with info about the cybersecurity firm ZeroFox.
Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson is a prominent voice on the ground and online—and according to Vice News, his social media presence has been the target of monitoring by the Department of Homeland Security.
According to a report by the news site, a Freedom of Information Act request showed that DHS has monitored Mckesson’s Twitter account, calling him a “professional demonstrator-protester known to law enforcement.”
Vice reports that Mckesson’s accounts were being monitored in May during the Baltimore protests in response to the death of Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured while in police custody. DHS kept track of when Mckesson posted details about a planned protest to his Twitter.
“Social media monitors have reported that a professional demonstrator-protester known to law enforcement [DeRay Mckesson] has post on his social media account that there is going to be a 3:00 pm rally at the FOP#3 lodge located @ 3920 Baltimore Ave, Baltimore, MD 21211 … This is early raw unevaluated and uncorroborated reporting at this time,” read one email with the subject “FYSA” (“for your situational awareness”), according to Vice.
As Vice notes, the Black Lives Matter activist has a sizable social media following, reaching more than 200,000 followers on Twitter alone. Mckesson often keeps followers aware of protests and matters pertaining to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Mckesson, however, was not the only target of cybermonitoring, according to Mother Jones. Cybersecurity firm ZeroFox indicated in “crisis management” report documents that the firm had been monitoring both Mckesson and fellow Black Lives Matter activist Johnetta “Netta” Elzie since the aforementioned Baltimore protests.
Those reports call Mckesson and Elzie “threat actors” who necessitate “immediate response.” Both of them were described as “high" severity,” “physical” and “#mostwanted” threats with a “massive” social media following.
According to MotherJones, ZeroFox’s CEO exchanged emails with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s chief of staff and the president of the FBI intelligence partnership program in Maryland to discuss the firm’s potential surveillance “help” for Baltimore. Those emails also show that ZeroFox “briefed our classified partners” at the Fort Meade military base in Maryland on “intelligence” that was collected during the protests, the site notes. The report on Mckesson and Elzie dates back to that briefing, according to Mother Jones.
Earlier this week, Mckesson tweeted about a protest at the Department of Justice offices in St. Louis marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, capturing videos of several arrests, including Elzie's, before he was arrested.
“In light of this [email] exchange including a DHS employee, we must ask if DHS officials knew of [McKesson’s] presence beforehand and planned to arrest him on suspicion of committing the grave future crime of active democratic participation,” Kade Crockford, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology for Liberty program director, told Vice.
“How long has DHS been watching Mckesson? For what purpose, exactly? Nothing about this behavior ‘secures’ the ‘homeland’—to the contrary, attacks like these on Mckesson and the Black Lives Matter movement’s civil rights and civil liberties undermine the ideals at the very foundation of a free society,” he said.
A DHS representative countered that the department’s National Operations Center “employs social media monitoring for situational-awareness purposes, within the clearly defined parameters articulated in our Privacy Impact Assessment, to ensure that critical information reaches appropriate decision-makers in federal, state, local, tribal and territorial governments,” Vice reported.